A few days ago, during my weekly visit to the comic book store, I stopped at the dense graphic-novel shelves, tyrannized by choice. Before me sat row upon row of the laughably misleading (The Essential Dazzler), the highly unnecessary (ElfQuest: Volume 14), and the already-read (Essex County). After a minute of unfocused browsing, I arrived at a chunk of Punishers. Thanks to a 2009 alt-weekly story, I’d recalled that The Punisher’s Six Hours To Kill was set in Philadelphia, where I live. I picked it up and flipped on through, remembering why I hadn’t read The Punisher since I was 13: it was really kind of dumb.
Still, I’d come closer to buying the book than I reasonably should have—and the only reason for that was its setting. Eighteen years had passed since I’d given Frank Castle any thought—eighteen years in which he’d killed his way through Queens, Detroit, and Nome. Yet all it had taken to rekindle my interest was for him to hop in his van and roar down the Turnpike. Had I read Six Hours To Kill, I might’ve recognized a street, a park, or a building—and that would’ve drawn me in. Whether in comics, films, or novels, this verisimilitude is a gift—recognition that you actually exist.
In 1995, Steve Lopez debuted with Third and Indiana, named after an intersection in Philly’s crumbling Badlands. The book was mediocre—its villain was a cartoon, its heroes whimpering saints—but its street details were compelling. “An old man with a white mustache and a newsboy hat cooked ribs and chicken on the sidewalk in a barbecue fashioned from a black metal drum.” “Kensington Avenue… sat in eternal darkness and gloom under the El, and the tracks were supported by an archway of rusted iron crablegs, a symbol of the city’s industrial death.”
In Pete Dexter’s Brotherly Love, gangsters and union guys battle it out on similarly gritty streets: “Michael sees them too late, one on the sidewalk, one on the street. He takes the pistol out of his coat pocket, beginning to run, and shoots four times, blowing out the front window of a poultry store kitty-corner in the Italian Market.” I live two blocks from the Market, and when I walk through with my wife, I’ll point towards Ninth and Catherine. “In Brotherly Love, there was a shootout right over there,” I’ll say. My hope, perhaps, is that she’ll find me somehow tougher—after all, I witnessed a goddamn shooting. Instead, she’ll ask, “Wait—this was in a book? So it didn’t actually… happen?” “No, not really,” I’ll mumble. But… I could’ve sworn…
Such split thinking speaks, of course, to the vitality of narrative, to how it tricks us towards belief. But unlike camping with the Joads or mourning poor Piggy, reading about one’s hometown doesn’t transport so much as extend, enlarging our maps with each page. I’ve spent time in nearby Germantown thanks to David Goodis’ Black Friday: “He was very careful about it as he walked along Morton Street, watching the doors, the porch posts, the brick walls underneath the porch.” When Point Breeze makes the paper, I’ve been there through The Corrections: “Friable houses with bedsheet curtains. Expanses of fresh asphalt that seemed to seal the neighborhood’s fate more than promise renewal.”
Until I wrote this piece, I hadn’t seen the thread that runs through my Philly reading: I focus on areas that I’d otherwise never enter; on things I’d rather not see. Like a Baltimorean watching The Wire, I experience the nearby underbelly without having to actually experience it. This might make me an earnest investigator or an entitled cultural sightseer; probably a mixture of both. But whatever my motive, I’m not nearly as interested in the places I already know. Were there a Philadelphia novel about a Bella Vista freelancer, I’d probably have to skip it. I spend enough time with myself.
In a recent issue of Superman, The Man of Steel began a cross-country walk in West Philadelphia. As with The Punisher, his visit made the news—but this time, much of it harped on errors. For one, Superman trekked through “The South Side”—a term used in Chicago, but never Philadelphia. And at a diner, he ordered a “Philly cheese steak sandwich,” as natural-sounding as a Bulgarian weekender. Such details, while seemingly petty, are crucial to hometown readers. We might be too busy, or nervous, or lazy to go out and explore what surrounds us—but if you’re the author, by God, you’d better get it right. Because we’ll take your stories as journalism; they’ll shape our thoughts for years. We may or may not be tourists, but you are surely our guide.
(Image: west philly, from lisacee’s photostream)
It seems likely to me that a few readers will not get past the introduction of Pete Dexter’s new book, a collection of newspaper columns and magazine articles called Paper Trails. In it he lets us know that he had little interest in collecting his columns in the first place. He tells us that the 82 columns and articles we are about to read will lack dates and any indication as to where they first appeared because, basically, he and his editor Rob Fleder didn’t want to dig them up. He also calls the venerable Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley a “worn-out old whore.”The people who don’t appreciate any of this, of course, are probably the same people who wrote to him over the years outraged by the way he treated his wife. For those who get Dexter, however, all of this is brilliant. Dexter is adamantly self-deprecating and willing to step on plenty of toes. He also used thousands of column inches to mercilessly tease his wife, as any reader of this collection will quickly discover. Naturally, to those with a sense of humor, it’s clear that Mrs. Dexter is just the foil for his antics.Though Dexter the newspaperman often comes off as brash and insensitive, compassion is Dexter’s most irrepressible quality in this collection of columns. Written primarily for newspapers in Philadelphia and Sacramento, Dexter’s columns evince a keen eye for people wronged by the system, and in them he slays corrupt cops, sleazy lawyers, and crooked politicians deftly with his pen. However, and this was a surprise to me, he also devotes plenty of ink to animals, his cats and dogs mostly, but there was also his memorable encounter with a peahen.Columns like these, 1000-word missives shot out of a cannon, are not seen much these days. Nowadays, local newspaper columnists aren’t the advocates they once were, instead getting caught up commenting on whatever was featured on CNN that day or hammering on petty controversies. It seems less likely that Dexter fell prey to those temptations during his newspaper career, and these 82 columns, stripped of their context and years or decades old, are no less affecting for it. It is a book that will make you laugh and cry nearly 82 times over.The central thread running through the collection, of course, is Dexter himself, sometimes the comic hero, other times carrying the weight of human depravity – the murders, the missing bodies, the broken families, and the drunks – on his shoulders. The urban decay of the 1970s, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, is the backdrop to this book. He wrote about the violent city, and violence would help end his newspaper career when he was beaten nearly to death by a mob in South Philly in 1981. As Pete Hamill explains in the forward to Paper Trails, Dexter had gone that day to make peace with brother of a man who had died in a drug deal and who Dexter had written about, but the man turned on him. Dexter would move on and wrote novels and screenplays – and this collection includes some of Dexter’s writing from that era, too – but even if Dexter hadn’t achieved his late career success, one suspects he would not have been bitter about it.Bonus Links: My review of Paris Trout; My review of Train; My review of Brotherly Love; The day I met Dexter.
I was poking around Amazon today and I came across a listing for a new book by Pete Dexter called Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage. I’m a fan of Dexter’s (see my review of Train, my review of Brotherly Love, and my review of Paris Trout), so I’m excited to see he’s got a new book, but what has me especially thrilled is that, if the subtitle is to be believed, the book is non-fiction. I had the chance to attend one of Dexter’s signings once, and he rattled off story after story, many of them from his days as an old newspaper guy in Philadelphia; it was definitely one of the most entertaining readings I’ve ever been to. This new book is being put out by Ecco. If anyone knows anything else about the book (or can get me a copy), let me know.
I bought Brotherly Love, a discounted, yet signed, copy from the remaindered section of the bookstore where I used to work. At the time I was enamored by Pete Dexter, whose books Train and Paris Trout I had recently read. Both of those books are spare and menacing, at times brutally violent, but done in a masterful way. Brotherly Love is like those books, but to call the book spare is an understatement. Dexter takes his time – most of the book, really – fleshing out the main characters, cousins Peter and Michael Flood from a Philadelphia gangster family. As the plot slowly develops – or comes to a boil, one might say – it becomes clear that Peter wants out. But of course, Michael and his band of hoods keep dragging him back in. In Brotherly Love, Dexter doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of his characters as he does so effectively in Paris Trout and Train, and the reader is left with a book that feels empty and characters that feel doomed from page one.
I attended a book reading and signing by Pete Dexter on Thursday night. It was a very entertaining evening. Dexter is an old newspaper guy from Philadelphia and he had a ton of great stories. One was about a guy he knew who would always invite people to punch him in the stomach. By flexing his powerful stomach muscles he was able to stop the puncher’s fist cold. Not the most impressive trick, but good for a few laughs. Well, all was going fine until one day he invited the then unknown Sonny Liston to slug him in the gut and was promptly sent flying across the room. Dexter had several stories like this which kept people in stitches. He also read from the beginning of his latest book, Train, which is very good by the way. I had him sign a copy of his National Book Award winner, Paris Trout, and while I was standing there I asked him which of his books he thought I should read next. He recommended both Deadwood and Brotherly Love. I’ll have to look for those.